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Sonny Rollins: The Gentle, Humble Jazz Giant

Listening session with the legendary saxophonist

Sonny Rollins and Bob Cranshaw at the Molde Jazz Festival in Norway
Sonny Rollins in Norway

At age 80, Sonny Rollins shows no signs of slowing down. He still records and tours internationally, keeping his musical tools sharp and his ears open. Though adulation makes him uncomfortable (of late, he humbly refers to himself as “a musical primitive”), Rollins has received nearly every important accolade in the world of music and the arts, including two Grammys, the Edward MacDowell Medal, Sweden’s Polar Music Prize and the NEA Jazz Masters Award. On March 2 he received the National Medal of Arts from President Obama at the White House. (Kennedy Center Honors, what are you waiting for?) Rollins is currently assembling a second volume of Road Shows recordings for a fall 2011 release on his Doxy label.

In July of 2010, I caught up with the celebrated saxophonist in Norway at the 50th anniversary of the Molde International Jazz Festival, where he performed an outdoor concert for thousands of dancing, rain-soaked fans. At his hotel, we took a few minutes to enjoy the panoramic view of the fjord, and then sat down to listen.

1. Coleman Hawkins

“Picasso” (from The Jazz Scene, Verve). Hawkins, tenor saxophone. Recorded in 1948.

BEFORE: Well, I’ll take a wild guess and say that’s my idol Coleman Hawkins. That’s probably that unaccompanied piece he did, “Picasso.” This performance is typical of his playing and his sound, just who he is. That he was bold enough to do an unaccompanied saxophone piece is remarkable in itself; but the playing is Coleman Hawkins, and that’s exemplary. I think that’s the first time I’ve heard this in its entirety, but I’ve heard about it and I might have heard an excerpt before. That’s why I was listening so intently and enjoying it. He’s got a gorgeous sound, a gorgeous voice. His range is like a cello, and Coleman is speaking, he’s talking. His tone is beautiful. He’s just the father of the tenor saxophone. So many people were able to get their own styles together listening to him. Five-plus stars if you go by that. It’s great.

You played with him, recorded with him. Did you ever talk to him about what he meant to you, or anything about music?

I didn’t have to. When I was 12 or 13, he used to live in my neighborhood [Sugar Hill in Harlem]. I took my 8X10 glossy picture of Coleman Hawkins, made by James J. Kriegsmann, and I went to his house and waited on his doorstep till he came home and had him sign it. He might have remembered me from that time. He knew I was a big admirer of his.

Do you still have that photograph?

Unfortunately I don’t. I wish I did. I remembered the photographer, James J. Kriegsmann, because he also did a portrait of Ben Webster. Hawkins lived at 153rd Street in a very nice apartment building called the King Haven, between St. Nicholas Ave. and Amsterdam Ave. I lived between 150th and 155th on Edgecombe Ave., which overlooked the Polo Grounds and Yankee Stadium.

You know how much that meant to you, to have your idol sign a photo. Do you know how much it means to a young musician to get you to sign something?

If I thought like that I think I would be jeopardizing my own legitimacy by putting myself on the level, which personally I’d prefer not to do. I’d prefer to be a person who is trying to be, rather than a person who acknowledges that I’m there. I know that I sign-sure, I’d be happy to do it. And I hope the young musician is serious and really wants to play and that this would mean something to him, yeah. But as far as me feeling that I’m a great man and all that, no. I’d prefer to eschew those types of conclusions.

That’s a sign of humility.

I think that’s a wonderful quality, myself.

2. Louis Jordan

“Buzz Me Blues” (from Let the Good Times Roll, MCA/Decca). Jordan, alto saxophone, vocal; Leonard Graham, trumpet; Freddie Simon, tenor saxophone; William Austin, piano; Al Morgan, bass; Alex “Razz” Mitchell, drums. Recorded in 1945.

BEFORE: [chuckles] That’s Louis Jordan. He’s one of these people who, practically everything he does is OK with me. Somebody told me about John Coltrane one time-they were saying that they didn’t like his later stuff, and did I hear it? I said I didn’t hear what they were talking about. But it didn’t matter because anything he did, it was the same thing. Everything I heard by him was OK with me because I knew where it was coming from. So I would say that about Louis Jordan.

I first heard him when I was a very young boy. I used to hear his records played by my uncle’s girlfriend. She had Lonnie Johnson and Arthur Crudup and Louis Jordan records. I was struck by Louis Jordan and I was enchanted by the saxophone. The format was more of a citified blues than country blues. I became a devotee of Louis Jordan when I was 7 years old. It was coincidental also that I was in elementary school and right coming out of school going home there was his picture there, an 8X10 glossy with his cutaway tails and his beautiful saxophone, a King Zephyr alto. So I really became a big fan of Louis Jordan.

Did you have any favorite records by him?

His group the Tympany Five was the same quintet configuration that Bird and Dizzy used later, so that’s the group I liked. I loved “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby,” “Five Guys Named Moe,” “I’m Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town.” That period is the one I like.

Tell me about his saxophone playing.

I’m not sure he was an innovator on the saxophone so much. Somebody told me he reminded them of Chu Berry, and that might have been right. He might have been playing in Chu Berry’s style when he played tenor. For what he did, it was perfect. He was my complete idol, and he was an excellent musician. I used to look at the pictures of him and he always had a different saxophone. I’ve seen him playing the King Zephyr, I’ve seen him with Selmers, and I’ve seen him playing Conns. That attests to the fact that he was such a consummate musician. He probably played whatever he liked at that moment. He was really great.

Did you ever see him perform?

I saw him at Birdland in New York one night when Charlie Parker was playing, and I saw him cheering and hollering and clapping, but I never met him. Spiritually I met him many times, and he was really a big influence on me. When I heard him, I knew I wanted to play. He was also a sort of a comedian in a way, sort of a Fats Waller. Fats Waller was another of my early idols. People said if you’re singing and having fun that you’re not serious; but with Louis Jordan and Fats Waller, it can be both fun and serious. You can’t deny the musical legitimacy of Louis Jordan.

3. Joshua Redman

“I’m an Old Cowhand” (from Back East, Nonesuch). Redman, tenor saxophone; Reuben Rogers, bass; Eric Harland, drums. Recorded in 2007.

BEFORE: So what is my reaction to that? Well, you put me at a disadvantage because you’re playing something associated with me, right? So I feel handicapped in trying to critique it or praise it or anything like that because it’s a take on something I did a while back. It’s great playing, proficient musicians, tight band. I think it worked. But I sort of feel that if I say, “Wow, it was great,” I’m sort of telling myself, “Wow, Sonny, you’re great.” We’re back to the humility again. What am I supposed to say about myself? Am I supposed to praise myself? I can’t do that. I don’t feel comfortable doing that. This was a nice concept to do it in an updated way, so I liked it.

AFTER: Yeah, I thought it was him. I’ve heard him play a few times. I’ve been told he’s a devotee of mine, so I figured someone doing that might be him. I’m completely flattered to know that someone has gotten something from me. I got something from all my predecessors. I like it a lot. I think it’s great. It’s a nice play on the original one. I hadn’t heard that before and I’m very impressed by the proficiency, by the whole thing. I heard a few things that he did that were reminiscent of something I recognized, so I can hear that he listened to me. I’m very honored by that. And it makes me feel that I’m worthwhile, that I’m passing it on, passing on something that I got from someone else.

4. Don Byas

“How High the Moon” (from The Savoy Story: Volume One – Jazz, Savoy Jazz). Byas, tenor saxophone; Benny Harris, trumpet; Jimmy Jones, piano; John Levy, bass; Fred Radcliffe, drums. Recorded in 1945.

BEFORE: [listens with periodic grunts of appreciation] Wow. That’s my idol Don Byas and Little Benny Harris, trumpet. I’m very familiar with that record. By the way, when I got that record “Ko Ko” by Charlie Parker, I got that record for Don Byas on the other side. I think that’s Jimmy Jones on piano-and if it is, it shows what an advanced musical mind he was. He was playing some very advanced harmonies. It’s a great record. Don Byas had the technical proficiency: He was a bebopper who had roots in the earlier school. You could hear from the way he was moving around that he was into the new way of playing, both rhythmically and harmonically.

I heard a little of Coleman Hawkins there, too. There’s that famous picture of Coleman Hawkins’ band, and he had Don Byas in the band and they were playing on 52nd Street with Denzil Best. I wish I had been there to hear the saxophonics. Don was a bebopper in that sense-a great, great player. Charlie Parker said anything he could play on the saxophone, Don Byas could play it. He was one of a kind. If he had stayed in the U.S. he would have been more recognized. And those records he made with Dizzy Gillespie-“I Can’t Get Started,” “Good Bait”-he was there already.

Did you meet him?

He was my hero. I came to Holland in the ’50s and I played at the Concertgebouw, and there was a guy waiting on the steps with his horn. That was Don Byas. So we went in and we started playing, just he and I. We played so much and so hard, because it was Don Byas, you know? [chuckles] I wondered whether he was trying to wear me out for my show. You know, sometimes with saxophonists there’s that competitive edge. It was a great honor to play with him.

5. Paul Motian

“I Got Rhythm” (from On Broadway Vol. 2, JMT). Motian, drums; Joe Lovano, tenor saxophone; Bill Frisell, guitar. Recorded in 1989.

BEFORE: Is that it? OK, interesting having the drums close out the piece. That’s unusual. I like the unexpected, so that’s nice. Who it is, I don’t know. They’re all proficient musicians.

What do you like about it, aside from the proficiency?

Proficiency is a big thing, man. It’s interesting the way they ended it. That style of drumming, you could feel he was like playing a horn or something, so that’s great. The saxophonist was completely right on. Everything was cool with his improvisation-I admired that. And the guitar player was doing a few things that are not common. It’s interesting to see guys try something beyond the ordinary. It wasn’t straight guitar playing; this chap was a bit more innovative.
AFTER: Oh, OK. I know all those guys, but I’ve never heard them play together. I liked it and I liked what they were doing. They gave an old standard a very personalized treatment.

6. Jo Stafford

“Long Ago (and Far Away)” (from Collectors Series, Capitol). Stafford, vocal; Paul Weston, arrangement. Recorded in 1944.

BEFORE: [sings along with the line, “Chills run up and down my spine” ] Well, of course, when you played that it brought back to my mind something I had observed in my personal life happening to me. I was just thinking about that song two days ago; I was thinking about it so strong. The fact that you came here today and played me that song is sort of a, I mean, I don’t know how to explain it. Everything is involved in everything else: Today is yesterday, yesterday is today, sort of like that. I noticed things like that happening to me at different times and it’s sort of striking.

Wow. This is perfect. The arrangement was gorgeous. Of course, Jerry Kern is one of my favorite composers of standards. I really relate to his songs. The singer was competent. She didn’t mess up Jerome Kern in any way, so I have to think it’s great.

What do you like about Jerome Kern’s songs?

I was introduced to harmonies and melodies when I was a child. I had a very forward-looking mother. I remember when I was really young she took us to see Pirates of Penzance, so I was introduced early on to these kinds of Western melodies, if you want to categorize it that way. And going to the movies a lot as a child, I heard a lot of Jerome Kern in the movies. In those days it was the movies every week-there was no television. So I was exposed to these songs and these composers, but Jerome Kern was one of my favorites of them because he struck a chord some place in me. He was maybe my favorite of all those guys.

AFTER: Very good. Jo Stafford did a very professional job, and Paul Weston, that was a textbook arrangement. I’m not saying that in a negative way. I mean textbook in terms of how it should have been done. It’s a great arrangement. I could hear the song. I used to play that song a lot.

Do you think about the lyrics when you’re playing?

That one I probably know all the lyrics to.

Do you think it’s a coincidence that you were thinking about this song two days ago?

Now that’s the part we haven’t explored, unless you have some way to explain it. That’s the mysterious part. It’s not coincidence-you picked that up. Not just this experience, but the way some of these other incidents have been happening to me leads me to believe that it’s more than chance. It’s something else-fate, maybe. But it makes you realize that there’s something at work besides what is obvious to us. Why should I be thinking of that song so strongly? It was a strong vibration with that song. I was singing it to my guitarist, and then here you come today, “Long Ago (and Far Away).” Everything is connected. That’s what I get out of it. Everything is connected in maybe a more profound way than we can realize, and that’s what’s been happening to me lately. So that was great. I loved that song. I loved Jo Stafford. I wanted to do one of her songs from a revue in New York, Inside U.S.A., [called] “Haunted Heart.” And she did a beautiful version.

I’m getting to the point where the music is getting away from these great standards. It’s not that they’re not legitimate, but the trend is to not go that way. I know that my guitar player Russell Malone loves standards. But the music is sort of making a shift. It’s not those songs so much that you can put potency to. I’m saying that without denying anything about them. I love them. You love them. But maybe it’s the people coming up: Now, people who are experiencing music are experiencing different times. So those songs may not have the same relevance or the same strength that they had for us. If the people don’t feel them, then they’re beginning to lose something. The music has to reach people so they can contribute to it with their appreciation. I just feel that now, these beautiful songs are beginning to fade from the imagination of younger audiences.

7. Gene Ammons

“Street of Dreams” (from The Gene Ammons Story: Gentle Jug, Prestige). Ammons, tenor saxophone; Patti Bown, piano; George Duvivier, bass; Ed Shaughnessy, drums. Recorded in 1962.

BEFORE: It sounds like Gene Ammons. Yeah. Now this is late Gene Ammons, right? I’ve heard him play this song before. I recognize his beautiful melody, playing and sound. I heard him play it many times in Chicago back in the day. The melody is still strong. He had a beautiful big saxophone sound. Everybody had to admire that. But everybody can’t get a sound like that, and that’s unfortunate [laughs]. Once you hear it you know immediately that that’s Gene Ammons. He’s another guy I would say almost anything he does I would like because it’s him.

8. Fly

“Dharma Days” (from Sky & Country, ECM). Mark Turner, tenor saxophone; Larry Grenadier, bass; Jeff Ballard, drums. Recorded in 2009.

BEFORE: I like it. I like the theme based on fifths, I believe. I like that a lot. That evokes something that I find attractive, something that I can use myself in some way. That’s inspiring to me.

AFTER: I don’t know them, but I think I’ve seen them advertised at one of these festivals I’ve been to. Yeah, I liked that. It’s good.

9. Billie Holiday

“Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone” (from The Complete Billie Holiday on Verve 1945-59). Holiday, vocal; Jimmy Rowles, piano; Artie Shapiro, bass. Recorded in 1955.

BEFORE: [laughter] Billie Holiday. I’ve never heard that before. That’s great. Anything by her is great-you know that. That was made in the ’50s. She’s so evocative; I’ve gotten so much training listening to Billie Holiday. Just listening to “Lover Man” with Budd Johnson on saxophone, it evokes the song: This is what it is and this is how to play it. Not note for note, but this is the feeling you’re supposed to have when you play it. I recorded “Easy Living.”

And you recorded “God Bless the Child.”

Right. Her rendition of that really moved me. It came from her. If someone else sang that song I don’t know if it would have appealed to me to play it. Her range was so narrow, but it’s amazing that she could create so much emotion and so much musicality in that narrow range. She was pure music. She was such an emotional singer. You just felt it right away. That’s something you have or you don’t have. You can’t acquire it. That’s something that was purely hers. That was very special and it moved me. I loved Billie Holiday. I thought she was a beautiful woman, physically as well as her music. We worked opposite one another when I was with Miles. I got to know her in the later part of her life, when she was sort of…

What were the circumstances?

I befriended her. She was sort of down on her luck at that point. She was still addicted and she had lost her cabaret card and all that stuff. I got her into a cab one time and rode with her up to her house, and she inscribed her book to me. But she didn’t really know my music. A lot of the music establishment was down on her at that time. Then we played together at a place in New Jersey. And I met [her husband], Louis McKay, and we were staying at the Walt Whitman Hotel in Camden. He was OK to me, but I saw Billie abused by some of the people she was working for. There was a guy in Philadelphia and he was hollering at her because she was late. It was sad to hear that. So she was at that point in her life when people were sort of kicking her around, and when I met her I got her a cab uptown. I never had a chance to play with her, but I felt her, absolutely, completely. I still have that book, Lady Sings the Blues, that she signed for me.

When you meet someone who had a great impact on you, do you tell them?

You mean Billie? I think she could feel my love for her. She was a very sensitive woman. I didn’t have to tell her. She knew. She just needed kindness.

Name some recordings that changed your life.

“I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter,” by Fats Waller. And probably I would say “Body & Soul” by Coleman Hawkins. And Louis Jordan, “It’s a Low Down Dirty Shame.” Those things set my life where it is, for better or worse.

Originally Published